Murder suspect Steven Rios pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in connection with the June 5 death of 23-year-old MU student Jesse Valencia.
Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton did not set a trial date for Rios, a former Columbia police officer. A representative from Hamilton’s office said trial dates are typically set within a few days of arraignment.
Stephen Richey, a lawyer from the Boone County Public Defender’s Office, represented Rios at the arraignment. The prosecution was represented by special prosecutor Ben Gray of Cape Girardeau. Morley Swingle, also of Cape Girardeau, has been the main prosecutor in the Rios case, but he did not attend Tuesday’s hearing.
Rios arrived at the Boone County Courthouse dressed in a black suit with a blue shirt and no tie. He wore shackles on his ankles and handcuffs and was surrounded by four plainclothes guards. Rios appeared calm and grinned at some people in the courtroom.
Linda Valencia, the mother of Jesse Valencia, arrived about 20 minutes before the hearing began. At a court appearance last month, Valencia said she became upset when Rios looked at her and smiled. She said Rios did not look at her Tuesday.
“It was probably a good thing,” she said. “I was already upset. I don’t think I could handle that.”
She said she expected Rios to plead not guilty, but she was still upset that the case will now go to trial.
“It made it worse because he pled not guilty,” she said. “I had hoped it would be over quickly. I do not know how I’m going to get through it, but I guess I have to.”
At a court appearance on Aug. 20, Rios waived his right to a preliminary hearing, moving his case directly to Tuesday’s arraignment. Swingle has delivered about 1,300 pages of police reports to Rios’ defense team. While that evidence has not been made public, some details are known about Rios’ connection to Jesse Valencia.
Shortly after Valencia’s body was discovered in a front yard on Wilson Street, Rios told police he had a homosexual relationship with Valencia. After the relationship became public June 10, Rios threatened twice to commit suicide. After escaping from protective custody and threatening to jump from a parking garage roof, Rios was transferred to the Biggs Forensic Center in Fulton State Hospital, where he has been held.
Police searched Rios’ home in June, looking for a folding knife and other evidence. Officers did collect clothing and trace evidence from the residence, but a folding knife was not discovered. A probable-cause statement for the search warrant also cited witness accounts of Rios’ whereabouts the night Valencia was killed.
A forensics investigation found traces of Rios’ DNA under Valencia’s fingernails. Rios told police that the last physical contact he had with Valencia was more than a week before the homicide. However, a DNA expert told investigators it would be unlikely for another person’s DNA to remain under someone’s fingernails that long.
Linda Valencia said she understands that Rios is innocent until proven guilty. However, she said she would support the death penalty for the former officer if he is convicted.
“If he’s not guilty, then that’s fine; let him prove he’s not guilty,” she said Tuesday. “But if he is, I want the harshest punishment.”